Words between the lines of age

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For someone whose life is centred on words, I sometimes find myself staggered by the complexity of the languages we speak. If the idea is to communicate with each other, then words are essential. But, my goodness, what a weird thing language is. I admit that I can get quite obsessive about spelling and punctuation (ask anyone at the Times), though I still find myself misusing punctuation and getting the grammar wrong sometimes. (Don’t mention that to anyone at the Times!).

I mean, look at this sentence: “When he was asked to lead, he led them to the lead mine”. Do you see what I mean? Lead, led, lead: spelling and pronunciation designed to make you dizzy. The same thing goes for something like: “that is their house, over there”. And, one of the most common and, I confess, irritating examples: “If that’s your car, you’re welcome to it”. Then there’s the major question about when “it’s” not “its”, if you follow.

You may ask why I’m talking about this instead of current concerns; but I think we need some variation in our days, a little light nonsense to break the isolating gloom. So, we discuss language. By the way, that sentence starts with “So” in a valid use of the word. So many people are now starting sentences with “So”, when it is completely invalid. You hear it on the radio all the time. A question is asked, like: “What is your favourite movie?”, and the answer comes back: “So, I think I like….” If you don’t understand my anguish at this usage, don’t worry. It is probably an attempt on my part to stop the tide coming in, as language changes constantly, and not all the changes make linguistic sense. Dig?

There have been attempts to formalise (or formalize) language. The famous language lover, Samuel Johnson published his famous Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, all 40,000 words of it, trying to establish the official spelling of words in English. It was generally successful, and his spelling was accepted until American lexicographer, Noah Webster brought out his own dictionary in 1828 to consciously make American spelling different from that of England.

He was the man who decided that the letter “u” was unnecessary in words like colour, flavour, neighbour, etc. He also favoured (favored?) using “z” instead of “s” in words like realise, and changing words like centre and theatre into center and theater. I suppose his victory is complete, now that M.P.s and even M.P.P.s in our own part of the world have been known to use the American spelling, as have some correspondents to this publication.

Surprisingly, it was that old rascal, John A. Macdonald, that first Prime Minister of Canada, who strongly opposed this practice (practise?) and declared that all parts of the British Empire should use British usage when it came to spelling, and made it mandatory for Canadian Government departments. At least there’s one thing I can say in his favour (note the “u”).

But English can be fun, too. Just moving the space between letters gives a wholly different meaning to a sentence like this: “That farmer out standing in his field is outstanding in his field”. A man loitering within tent can be accused of loitering with intent. Yes, you could have great fun with language.

But that brings me to a particularly Canadian use of language which I believe has a deep psychological importance for the nation. Canadians like to think, and like to be told by other nations, that they are basically a decent, relaxed and good-natured people, especially when contrasted with their southern neighbours. But I think that aggression has simply been submerged in their use of language. Hence, Canadians do not have a bite to eat, or buy a coffee. No, they grab a bite, and they grab a coffee. Students do not read a book, or begin to study. Rather, they hit the books, or crack open a book. Rather violent usage, don’t you think? Hmmm.

To end this diatribe, this linguistic rant, let me mention a few other interesting abominations that I have noticed recently. The answer to every question need not be “Absolutely!” It may be “Yes, I agree”, for example. You may be “excited for the concert tonight”, as so many on the CBC have been heard to say. Being excited on behalf of the concert may be fine, but that is not what is meant. You are excited by the concert, or excited about the concert. Prepositions are often, too often, used in the wrong place, and that completely changes the meaning of what is said. The thing is, nobody really notices, because we know what was meant to be said.

Oh well, perhaps this is just the raving ramblings of an Irishman out of his natural environment, though I am sure that this lowering of linguistic standards is widespread by now. Perhaps I am just being pedantic about this entire subject. Oh, I just thought – perhaps using the word “pedantic” is being pedantic? Language is complicated. I suppose some readers will think I’m serious and label me something awful. In this world, we need some lighthearted fun. That’s all it is. So, (meaning “in that case”) we must return to the world as we find it these days, with its fears and disruptions. But this, too, shall pass. We shall overcome.

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